In Buddhism, among the Mahayana school of thought, there are those who are able to reach nirvana but delay doing so in order to save others who would get left behind and have to suffer. Such a noble person is known in Sanskrit as a bodhisattva, or “buddha-to-be”. The term applies to anyone motivated by great compassion who has sufficiently generated bodhicitta. This is the spontaneous wish of a compassionate mind to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, accompanied by a detachment from the illusion of an inherently existing self.
Such a status also exists in the domain of the supernatural as well, for among the deities there are similar beings. As an example, there is a Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion known as Avalokitesvara, among other names. Not surprisingly, he is probably the most popular figure in Buddhist legend. Avalokitesvara is quite beloved even by Theravada monks and nuns who typically don’t recognize bodhisattvas, as well as the more esoteric branch of Vajrayana Buddhists.
This is because, according to the Lotus Sutra, he hears the cries of sentient beings, and works tirelessly to help those who call upon him. To many, Avalokitesvara embodies the compassion of the Buddha and all the bodhisattvas. In many ways, he is the spirit of empathy, at the very heart of humanity. He can even incarnate as a great spiritual teacher, like with the Dalai Lama and other influential figureheads.
The Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion has endless manifestations. In Cambodia he appears as Lokesvarak, while in Japan Buddhists call him Kanzeon. Then again, in Tibet he is often depicted with four arms and is known as Chenrezik. Whereas, in China she is sometimes seen as an 18-armed goddess named Cundi. Meanwhile, as Avalokitesvara this deity has a thousand arms, as well as eleven heads.
As the story goes, after struggling to comprehend the needs of all the suffering creatures in the world, his head split open into eleven pieces. Then, from that grew eleven new heads, with which to hear the desperate cries of the unenlightened. So, upon witnessing their strife, Avalokitesvara attempted to reach out to all those in need of aid, but he soon found that his arms weren’t strong enough and they broke into a thousand pieces. However, from this grew a thousand new arms to give him the strength he needed.
Then, millennia ago, during the life of the Buddha, a bodhisattva learned that chanting while meditating could lead to the attainment of enlightenment. As such, Mahayana Buddhists came to relate Avalokitesvara to the six-syllable mantra om mani padme hum. Due to that association, one form of Avalokitesvara is the Lord of the Six Syllables. He was first mentioned as Sadaksari in a religious text dating back to the late 4th or early 5th century of the common era.
Then, in the 12th century, Dusum Khyenpa attained enlightenment at the age of fifty in Kampo Kangra, thus succesfully channeling the spirit of empathy. From then on he was regarded by highly respected masters like Shakya Sri and Lama Shang as a manifestation of Avalokitesvara whose coming had been predicted in the Samadhiraja Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra. As a result, he became the 1st Gyalwa Karmapa, serving as head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
A couple centuries later, Avalokitesvara incarnated as Pema Dorje, a boy who was destined to become the 1st Dalai Lama. He was born in a cattle pen in Tsang in 1391. Then, when he reached puberty he became ordained and took the name of Gendun Drup. After he died a boy known as Sangyey Pel born in Tsang declared himself, at age three, to really be Gendun Drup and asked to be taken home, at the earliest possible convenience.
The Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion reincarnated this way throughout the years, leading all the way up through to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1935, Avalokitesvara was reborn as Lhamo Thondup on a straw mat in a cowshed in a remote part of Tibet. Later, after his monastic training, he took on the name Tenzin Gyatso, and to this day he still travels the world spreading peace as a highly esteemed spiritual leader and a world renowned Buddhist.
Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ